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Emergency Room DelaysNew York Times Editorial
Published: January 19, 2008
The nation's failure to provide health insurance for all Americans seems to be harming even many of those who do have good health coverage. That is one very plausible interpretation of a disturbing increase in waiting times at emergency rooms that are often clogged with uninsured patients seeking routine charity care.
An analysis by researchers at the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School, found that the median waiting time to see a physician in hospital emergency departments jumped from 22 minutes in 1997 to 30 minutes in 2004.
For the sickest heart attack patients, according to results published in the journal Health Affairs, wait times more than doubled. In 1997, half of them got to see a doctor within eight minutes; in 2004 it took 20 minutes. For a quarter of the heart attack patients, the wait reached 50 minutes or more - a particularly disturbing lag when every minute of delay increases the likelihood of death.
The researchers attribute the longer waits primarily to an increase in the number of emergency room visits coupled with the closure of many emergency rooms. Both factors are driven by the lack of universal health coverage. Uninsured patients - and those who have no primary care doctor - flock to emergency rooms for routine coverage, clogging the system. Meanwhile, hospitals lose so much money dispensing charity care through emergency rooms that many collapse into bankruptcy or give up emergency care.
Emergency rooms are further overburdened, caring for seriously ill patients who can spend hours or even days there waiting to be admitted to inpatient or intensive care units. That is because many hospitals are either short on beds or have decided to allocate many beds to patients who pay top dollar for elective care.
The Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, warned two years ago that the nation's emergency rooms were at a breaking point. It called for better systems to route patients to the least crowded emergency rooms and an infusion of money to bolster emergency care. The Cambridge Health Alliance doctors call for expanding insurance coverage and primary care for the poor to provide alternatives to overcrowded emergency rooms for those seeking routine care. That is the best way to ensure that all the people who truly need emergency care get it when they need it.
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